(RNS) Members of Westboro Baptist Church, the anti-gay church that protests military funerals, won a court victory Thursday (Sept. 24) when a federal appeals court overturned a $5 million judgment against them.
The father of a Marine who was killed in Iraq in 2006 sued Westboro pastor Fred Phelps and members of his Topeka, Kan., church after they protested his son’s funeral with signs that said “Thank God for dead soldiers” and “God hates America.”
Judge Robert B. King of the 4th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., writing in the majority opinion, said the signs were “utterly distasteful” but addressed “matters of public concern.”
Rejecting the privacy arguments of Albert Snyder of York, Pa., King upheld the church’s free speech rights.
“Notwithstanding the distasteful and repugnant nature of the words being challenged in these proceedings, we are constrained to conclude that the defendants’ signs and (statements on the church’s Web site) are constitutionally protected,” King said.
The lawyer for Snyder said he will seek an appeal to the Supreme Court. He said he was disappointed that the appeals court focused on Westboro’s free speech rights rather than his client’s freedom of religion.
“After all, Mr. Snyder was just worshipping at his own church when they brought their circus to town and essentially disrupted a normal funeral service,” said Sean E. Summers.
In 2008, a U.S. district court lowered the judgment against the church from $10.9 million to $5 million.
Shirley Phelps-Roper, a defendant in the case, was thrilled with the appellate court’s decision.
“Our God is in charge of all of this operation and that lawsuit only has one function: It was to explode his word all over this globe,” she said. “That’s what it accomplished. Now the whole world is talking about our doctrine.”
As for an appeal, she added: “They’re never going to shut us up. Lots of luck.”
<emBy Adelle M. Banks
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.